Bags and baggage
The news that an offer had been made on my mother’s Brunswick condo two days before Christmas should’ve come as a welcomed relief. The condo had been vacant since her hospitalization nearly a year ago, and had been for sale since June, following her death last May.
The real estate market is weak in general, but it’s been especially so in Brunswick due to the imminent closing of the naval air station. Few people had even looked at her condo, let alone made offers. At one point, there were six units in her development for sale. Although the price was substantially less than what my two older brothers and I were asking, we felt lucky at that point to get any reasonable offer at all.
So why these tears?
Because that condo had become something of a mausoleum to me. Since a cleaning shortly after Mom passed away, I’d only been there a handful of times. Once to pack her — now my — china and go through her jewelry. Once to borrow her lobster pot and platters for company last summer. Once to clean out the garage so my brother could store his day-sailer there. And once to sift and sort through her clothes one day last July.
I kept a few things for myself that fit. (Never before had my closet seen so much color or so many Talbots labels.) I stowed a few others I could neither toss nor send to Goodwill (her beat-up Keds, her pink bathrobe, a favorite pair of shorts) and bagged the rest. One of Mom’s ongoing projects had been “getting at that closet.” It didn’t even take me an afternoon to sweep through the entire space.
My brothers made their separate trips, too. Each time one of us would venture there, one might leave with an item or two — a bottle-opener, a toaster oven, her knitting bag, a stepping stone from her garden — but for the most part we were in unspoken agreement to leave everything as it was. On the surface, we did this because our realtor said the condo would sell better with all the furnishings in place. But beyond that, taking her things would make them our things, moving her one further step from this world to the other. Keeping the museum intact preserved a part of her we did not have to let go.
Until the offer.
I’d never felt much attachment to the condo itself. All my emotional investment remained with our home in Bath, where I grew up and in which Mom lived for 52 years. Saying goodbye to that farmhouse with two attics and a huge barn was the hard job. That’s when the bulk of the downsizing took place.
Mom was still in good health then, and went at the job with a clear eye and swift hand. Early on, she held a giant yard sale. Rather than help, I kept retrieving things she was putting out. “Tiger!” I exclaimed, diving for a stuffed animal with one eye, a striped tail worn of its fur, and a ripped crotch. (Crotch? Do cats have crotches?) “You can’t sell Tiger,” I said, scooping him and his sidekick, Mr. Bear, from the box inside which these ratty critters had spent the better part of the preceding 30-plus years. From there, I went on to rescue my dad’s hard hat and boxes of bent nails. I didn’t particularly want these things. I just didn’t want anyone else to have them.
My brothers and I were more ruthless when we helped her pack for the move to Brunswick. We sniggered at the tea-cup and milk-glass collections. We turned up our noses at the crushed-velvet armchair, the ottoman and the silk flower arrangements. A unifying cry of “Toss it!” rang through those childhood rooms. This was the stuff we had grown up and away from. It was representative of her taste, not ours. Besides, we didn’t need her things. We had her.
That all changed once she was gone. My mother’s clothes are not my mother — I had to keep telling myself this as I bagged her things that afternoon last summer. Even though most of them ended up at Goodwill or the dump, it was important that I put my hands on each piece and give it my time and consideration. It was my modern-day version of dressing the dead.
My mother knew none of us much cared for her milk glass, so to rib me she’d occasionally ask, already knowing the answer, what was going to happen to it when she was gone. While the condo wasn’t selling, I could defer the collection’s fate. I didn’t have to pack up all those bowls and dishes and vases and say, “You were right, Mom. No one wants these.”
That luxury expired with the offer. But the pending sale is telling me something I’ve known for a while: It’s time to get on with it.
Elizabeth Peavey confesses that writing about chucking stuff is easier than doing it. Tea, anyone?